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What To Make Of The Police Union's 'No Confidence' Vote

The results of a recent local police union vote held to gauge confidence in department leadership won't likely lead to any administrative changes in the city agency.

The River City Fraternal Order of Police held the vote earlier this week, and more than 98 percent of the some 600 members who took part said they don't have confidence in Police Chief Steve Conrad.

Some 97 percent said they don't believe Conrad "adequately" supports union members who "strive to enforce the law and maintain order on the streets of Louisville."

Union head David Mutchler did not respond to attempts to clarify how, specifically, the vote should be interpreted and how the public should interpret "no confidence."

Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, said such votes are only held "when things are bad."

"It means (the officers) feel leadership is not doing the right job," Roberts said in telephone interview Friday.

Despite the overwhelming sentiment, Mayor Greg Fischer has expressed little interest in making any changes in police leadership. On Friday, he called the vote "a distraction."

"I appreciated their input, now let's get back to work," he told reporters Friday morning after a press event for an unrelated matter.

Roberts said Fischer's response is inappropriate.

"Any public official like that has an obligation to take a hard look at the department in terms of what it really needs," he said. "In too many cases, they do nothing."

Roberts, whose group is a "totally police-oriented organization" that represents more than 100,000 law enforcement officers across the county, said such votes should be "taken very seriously."

But Sam Walker, an author and expert on policing and police accountability, disagreed.

"Votes of no confidence really don't mean anything," he said in a telephone interview Friday.

Walker said such votes happen "all the time." He said police unions have the right to voice their opinion. But votes of no confidence are generally symbolic. That is, unless officers' concerns are rooted in something substantial, he said.

In Louisville, Mutchler has pushed back on a recent reorganization ushered in by Conrad that disbanded division-level flex platoons to bolster the department's narcotics unit and SWAT team. The same move has been lambasted by council members and some community advocates.

And last month, Mutchler criticized Conrad in a letter to the mayor in which he said confidence in department leadership is "at an all-time low." He also called for more officers. Fischer has pledged to add nearly 30 more to the department's ranks.

"The police manpower issue in this city has been ignored for so long that our department is no longer able to fulfill its mission and pledge to our citizens," he wrote.

Walker said it's nothing new to hear officers call for a larger police force. As for the reorganization, he said the move could "have pluses and minuses on both sides."

A report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police notes that no-confidence votes can "likely be avoided if the police executive pays particular attention to the well-being of employees by listening to and responding to their concerns."

"Communication is key," the report states.

Conrad said earlier this week he'd work to spend more time with division-level officers. The pledge came after he fielded a barrage of questions from Metro Council members during a year-end report that lasted more than two hours.

Fischer has repeatedly said he supports Conrad despite the city's surging violent crime.

The criminal homicide tally is at a record high and shootings are up compared with previous years, according to police data.

"That's what we need to be focused on," Fischer said.

The hiring and firing of police chiefs is done solely at the discretion of the mayor. Conrad is the city's highest salaried employee and not currently under contract. He is paid $175,000 per year, according to a city database.

In a statement posted to Facebook after the votes were tallied, Conrad said he remains "steadfast in my commitment to work with the men and women of the Louisville Metro Police Department to do all we can together to make Louisville a safer community."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.